July 29, 1948, release date
Directed by Bernard Vorhaus
Screenplay by Crane Wilbur, Muriel Roy Bolton, Ian McLellan Hunter
Based on a story by Crane Wilbur
Edited by Norman Colbert
Cinematography by John Alton
Turhan Bey as Alexis
Lynn Bari as Christine Faber
Cathy O’Donnell as Janet Burke
Richard Carlson as Martin Abbott
Donald Curtis as Paul Faber
Virginia Gregg as Emily
Harry Mendoza as Detective Hoffman
Distributed by Eagle-Lion Films
Produced by Ben Stoloff Productions
This may be the first time that I describe a film noir as fun and entertaining, but The Spiritualist certainly was a fun film noir. It reminds me of the films that I used to watch on television years ago, on weekday afternoons when I should have been doing my homework. And this may be the first time that I wasn’t really sure what to call this film. The Spiritualist also goes by the title The Amazing Mr. X, and for the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why.
I’m sure no one ever intended to make both the plot and the title of this film mysterious. Was one title used for release in Great Britain? For release around the world? Was one a working title that was abandoned after test audiences saw the film before wide release? No one in the film is referred to as Mr. X, not even Alexis, the spiritualist. He’s the only one with an x in his name, so maybe viewers were just supposed to assume a connection. That seemed a bit weak to me, but finally I found the following information from TCM:
The title on the print viewed, The Amazing Mr. X, was apparently used for the film’s reissue and subsequent television release.
The Spiritualist is the title on the DVD that I watched (it was published by Columbia Classics and Sony Pictures). Based on the DVD and the information from Turner Classic Movies (TCM), I decided to go with The Spiritualist.
Now, to the film, which is really much more than a film noir. The mystery includes a dead husband supposedly calling to his wife from the grave. Is this film about a spiritual connection, or is the wife in need of some mental health care? The film starts with Christine Faber, the wife, looking out her bedroom window in the house overlooking the beach. (The opening credits appeared over this same beach.) She is approached from behind by a shadow; it appears to be a person holding a gun. But it’s Janet Burke, Christine’s sister, and she is holding nothing more than a hairbrush. Christine is standing in front of her window because she thought she heard the voice of her late husband Paul, who has been dead for two years now, calling to her.
Christine and Janet talk about Christine’s boyfriend, a lawyer named Martin Abbott. He plans to propose to Christine, and Janet is determined that her sister doesn’t miss what she thinks is a wonderful opportunity. Paul is dead, and nothing can bring him back. After such a sinister introduction and her sensible views about Paul, Janet comes across as flighty, a romantic who is barely out of her teenage years, during this conversation. I was never quite sure if Janet was to be trusted or not. The conversation between the sisters ends because Janet has a date of her own and leaves for a night out.
Christine talks to Martin on the phone and tells him that she would like to walk along the beach to meet him. On the beach, she hears the voice of her late husband calling her name several times. Then she literally bumps into Alexis, who seems to know a lot about her and her husband. I’m not sure if the filmmakers intended this, but Alexis comes across as odd for more than his extensive knowledge about Christine. He is also standing on the beach in a suit and tie, rather formal attire for night of sand and crashing waves! Alexis draws a distinction between himself, a psychic, and Martin, a very logical lawyer. He knows a lot about Martin Abbott, too. He gives Christine his business card, in case she would ever like to pursue her connections to her late husband. From this introduction of Alexis, the audience knows that Christine shouldn’t contact this man. And, of course, she does.
(This blog post about The Spiritualist contains some spoilers.)
A series of strange coincidences convinces Christine that Paul must be trying to contact her from the other side. But when she talks about these coincidences with Janet, she can’t prove any of it, and Janet cannot be convinced when she sees the evidence for herself. It seemed to me while I watched these scenes that Christine was being gaslighted, and I still had the feeling that Janet might not be as flighty as she came across after the opening of the film. This contradiction sets up the ambivalence and doubt that keep viewers guessing about what is going and who is responsible.
Christine mentions to Janet that she would like to talk to Alexis, the “psychic consultant” (so reads his business card) that she met on the beach. Based on Janet’s reaction, Christine starts going to Alexis for consultations in secret. The film cuts forward in time, to a scene when Janet and Martin follow Christine to Alexis’s house. Janet is trying to convince Martin that Christine could be in trouble, and now he is convinced. He and Janet consult a private detective, Detective Hoffman, and he tells them that all the psychics he has investigated are phonies.
The three of them decide to bait Alexis by sending in Janet, someone he doesn’t know. She goes to his house and is greeted with all the same stunts that greeted Christine, for example, the front door to Alexis’s house closing automatically behind her, the pet bird cawing on its perch in the living room. Alexis observes Janet through a two-way mirror as she touches up her lipstick and polishes a cigarette case. Alexis purposely leaves his fingerprints on the cigarette case, and I finally realized why Janet polished it in the first place. But Janet has fallen under his spell, and she has fallen in love with Alexis. When Janet leaves Alexis’s house, she is in such a fog that she walks past the car driven by Martin, with the detective in the passenger seat. She tells Martin that she got Alexis’s fingerprints but that she erased them. The film has some moments of humor, and one moment comes when Janet gets into the backseat of the car; Martin gives her a quick indelicate shove because he wants evidence, not another woman enchanted by Alexis.
The rest of the plot is a wonderfully entangled web in which no one can trust anyone else and no one knows what to believe. Viewers are caught up in this, too, especially when they find out what Alexis is up to and the tricks he uses to scam his clients into handing over more and more money. But even Alexis has a surprise or two up his sleeve.
I enjoyed this film much more than I thought I would. I didn’t have high hopes about it; the confusion about the title didn’t help much. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the plot provided some real surprises. It was great to watch a film that kept me guessing so effortlessly.